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SmallLaw: Solo Practice Still Stinks (Perils Revisited)

By Mazyar Hedayat | Monday, September 21, 2009


Originally published on September 14, 2009 in our free SmallLaw newsletter.

Some of you might remember The Perils of Solo Practice, my SmallLaw column about the departure of my long-time Associate Attorney and the harsh realities of practicing alone for the first time in 10 years. The piece chronicled the disappointment and frustration I felt running through over a dozen subpar employees over the next 18 months while fending off stomach-churning instability and fighting to regain focus.

At the end of the piece I concluded that despite the problems inherent in growth and even working with a partner, remaining solo was a losing proposition. Being solo runs headlong into human limitations like sleep (not enough), work (too much), and money (not nearly enough). Not exactly a controversial conclusion. Except that it was, judging by reactions in TechnoLawyer's Fat Friday newsletter, on the ABA's Solo Sez bulletin board, posts on Twitter and around the blawgosphere, and personal messages emailed directly to me.

The Controversy

Many comments took issue with the observation that, as a solo, I felt overworked, underpaid, and continuously exhausted — something I wagered that other solos were going through as well. A number of messages theorized that I was projecting, because I was lazy and unprepared myself. Others insisted the piece was a spoof. But the majority of comments had little to do with the article. Instead they described fulfilling solo practices and comfortable lifestyles. Apparently being solo was the most preferable way to practice, if only I understood.

A House Divided

At first I was surprised by these reactions. But after looking more carefully I realized that the responses pretty much broke down along generational lines among Baby Boomers, Gen-X, and Gen-Y much the same way that the profession has resolved itself over the last decade into distinct camps. The overall picture looks like this:

Age Group: Boomers
% of Lawyers: Highest
Key Technology: Email, BlackBerry
Key Online App: AOL
Status: Highest
Collaboration: Lowest

Age Group: Gen-X
% of Lawyers: Middle
Key Technology: Web 2.0 (SaaS)
Key Online App: Blogs
Status: Middle
Collaboration: Middle

Age Group: Gen-Y
% of Lawyers: Lowest
Key Technology: Social Networks
Key Online App: Facebook
Status: Lowest
Collaboration: Highest

Gen-X lawyers, by and large, agreed with my conclusions. Some offered to help. Some were gratified to know they were not alone. Ultimately their comments reflected the same frustration that I felt.

Gen-Y lawyers had no opinion, or at least they didn't share any. Of course many law school graduates didn't pass the bar until last month and older members of the group were probably too busy looking in vain for work.

Boomers however, led the charge against the article. One well-known blogger called it "completely useless." High praise indeed.

Statistically, most sole practitioners are Boomers and most Boomers are sole practitioners. So why did my piece strike such a nerve? Boomer sole practitioners should agree with me. Could it be that despite riding the profession's economic peak in the 80's and 90's, dominating the bench, ruling the lives of law students and associates, deciding what is legal and ethical, and setting the cultural agenda for decades, Boomers are insecure and defensive? That would explain a lot …

What It Might Mean

Look at it this way, a 50-ish sole practitioner or small firm attorney has made their mark, bought their home, taken their vacations, raised their kids, and established stable relationships with clients. They've outlasted the skeptics, learned the tricks of the trade, and have become comfortable with themselves. In short, Boomers are at the peak of their careers and may even have crossed the threshold into retirement. Who could complain about being his or her own boss under those circumstances? And who in that group would have the least bit of empathy for someone still trying to get the balance right?

By contrast however, if you entered the profession in the 90's or later you've never known true income security, have no idea what the future holds, haven't had time to think of retirement, and may have been wiped out financially twice by now — the first time in stocks and the second time in real estate. Not only that, but a student-loan nut the size of a mortgage shadows your every move. For members of Gen-X it's fair to say the profession hasn't been what it was cracked up to be.

Finally, I'm not sure it even makes sense to talk about Gen-Y sole practitioners because for the most part they've simply left the profession or hung out a shingle under protest. They are terrified of going solo, but with jobs scarce and the Internet commoditizing law practice, what choice do they have? The End of Lawyers indeed — thank you very much Richard Susskind.

I'm Sorry … So Sorry

Granted, when I'm under pressure this column can sound a little strident. Since I was feeling pressed earlier this year when I wrote my controversial piece, it was bound to come off as aggressive. And I'm not afraid to say I'm sorry to everyone who thought it was an insult to their cushy way of life.

I apologize for publicly revealing the truth. But it was the truth after all. It wasn't an exaggeration and the points made in the piece remain valid. Want proof? Today I again employ an Associate Attorney, a Paralegal, and an Office Manager. My Associate is great at keeping the small stuff from overwhelming me, my Paralegal works wonders with billing, and my Office Manager keeps the whole setup humming so I can write these little vignettes. In short, everybody's happy. Who says that practicing solo is the way to go? Not me.

Written by Mazyar M. Hedayat of M. Hedayat & Associates, P.C.

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Topics: Law Office Management | SmallLaw
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